The first part of what I want to say comes under the phrase: “according to the Law”. Mary and Joseph, we are told, did all that was required of them “according to the Law”. On this fortieth day after the birth of Jesus, what was it they were required to do?
- First, Mary, the mother, was required to make a purification sacrifice at the end of a period of forty days of confinement to the home. The only exception to leave the home was for the circumcision of the child, but otherwise she was to remain at home. The tradition of confinement after childbirth is common enough in many cultures, and from my own male perspective of this, would seem to give the mother permission to perhaps not be concerned with outside things and just concentrate on the infant and its needs. Anyway St Luke tells us that Mary did as the Law required and then made the appropriate sacrifice, which was either a lamb or a young pigeon (or turtledove) depending on whether one was rich or poor respectively. An additional sin offering was required of a young pigeon or turtle dove. Mary offers the two young pigeons/turtledoves, and so Luke identifies her amongst the poor. Mary of course did not need purification. She was already pure, she was without sin. She did not need purifying from the birth of Jesus. In fact, His birth ushers in the purification of the world. What we see happening in this amazing moment is a reversing or a turning of things on their heads. Mary offers a sacrifice for purification, but is already pure. Christ’s birth does not make impurity, it ushers in the purification of the world.
- The second thing that happens on the fortieth day is that a price has to be paid for a firstborn child. The firstborn child in every Jewish family belongs to the Lord, and parents must therefore redeem their child – an act of redemption. They must pay any priest in the land 5 shekels and then the child is redeemed. What is unusual in Luke’s account is that no redemption is mentioned. We might think well maybe they did it later. But could it be that Luke is telling us something else?
- The third thing that happens is that Jesus is presented to the “Lord” in His Temple. He is not redeemed and thus Jesus remains unreservedly God’s child. There is no redemption by the parents for the child they just present Him to God, to the Father (we would say), and this firstborn infant child remains the LORD’s; He is the Son of God. Jesus doesn’t need redemption of course, for He is the Lord. He does not need redemption but He is the One who brings redemption, who pays the price for our redemption (not 5 shekels but the Cross). But there is a further dimension here; more reversing of things. The Incarnate Son of God comes for the first time to the Temple, which is the meeting-place between God and Man. Yet here is the One in whom there is the perfect meeting-place between God and Man. Here is the One who will, in His own words, “tear down the Temple and in three days rebuild it.” We know of course He was talking metaphorically, for the Temple of Jerusalem would be replaced by what occurred in three days. The “rebuilding of the Temple” was the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The new meeting-place between God and Man, the new Temple, the new place of worship and sacrifice, is Jesus Christ Himself. He is in His own Person the New Temple. Again something else has been turned on its head.
So under this phrase “in accordance with the Law” something remarkable is revealed. Really Mary and Joseph, of all people, didn’t in a sense need to do this: Mary was pure, Jesus did not make her impure, Jesus did not need redemption, and the Temple was to be replaced by Jesus Himself. Yet nevertheless Mary and Joseph do what was expected of them in the Law. They are obedient, yes, and that is of course a very important virtue in any of us (remembering of course that all our human problems have their root in the first disobedience by Adam and Eve). But it also helpfully reminds us that through what might seem obligations that seem to have no meaning, God can reveal quite remarkable things to us and to others. The Church requires us to fulfil certain obligations that can seem arbitrary but let us remember that God sees things differently – let us rejoice in obedience, and that when we fulfil our obligations we are in very good company!
Following these events “according to the Law” comes prophecy. And we should note here too, that the two go happily together. Both the legal and the spiritual come together. Both the fulfilling of obligations, and the work of the Holy Spirit, come together. Both the obedience to law, and the inspiration of the Spirit, come together. They are not mutually exclusive. You know, according to our personalities one or other is more comfortable to us. Some people like the legalistic approach, we could say, while others prefer a more spiritual inspiration , we might say. Remember what our Lord said, “He did not come to abolish the Law, but fulfil it!” We need to recognise in ourselves our natural tendencies and recognise in the other aspect something God-given. Both belong together.
The devout man Simeon, a spiritual man, a man tuned in to God, comes to this poor couple. Here we see something very beautiful. For here are two young and poor parents, an infant, and an elderly man. Yet here is one of the profound encounters between men in human history; yet also an event most people would have overlooked. The priests and important types in the Temple at that time would not have noticed. Simeon knows because he is tuned into God and is seeing as God sees.
And the infant Jesus is referred to by Simeon as “salvation”. “My eyes have seen your salvation”, Simeon exclaims. Jesus is salvation; that is His name. And Simeon also sings that Jesus is the “light to enlighten Gentiles” and Jesus is also the “glory to your people Israel”. Both of these are from the prophecy of Isaiah.
Simeon then says to the parents, that this child is to be a “sign” challenging us to make a choice (rising and falling of many). And I think this is something incredibly important here. This child does not make everyone feel good! God is love, but love is not a feeling. And can be hated when it challenges us to transcend ourselves. It is not a ‘good feeling’. Redemption, you see, is not wellness, is not basking in self-indulgence ; on the contrary it is a liberation from the imprisonment in self-absorption.
This liberation comes at a price: the anguish of the cross. The prophecy of light is bound up with the prophecy of the cross – they both go together. You cannot have light, without the cross. Christmas has no meaning without Good Friday and Easter.
The sword will pierce your own soul too. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of God, will also go to the cross. She won’t be nailed to the cross, but her own immaculate heart will share in the crucifixion. The sword will pierce her soul too.
In the Fathers of the church there was something characteristically different between Christianity and paganism around them. For the pagans, the gods did not sense the sufferings of others – they did not have compassion. In Christianity however, God suffered with men and draws men into His compassion. The Mater delorosa is therefore the iconic attitude of Christianity. The sword must pierce our soul too.